The Bodleian Libraries to acquire rare manuscript treasure in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach

The Bodleian Libraries are delighted to announce the acquisition through the acceptance in lieu scheme of the autograph of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata for Ascension Day: ‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ (BWV 128). The manuscript, which is one of only four in the UK in the hand of the great composer, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government in 2024 and allocated to the Bodleian. The manuscript will go on public display from 15 March 2024 as part of the free exhibition Write, Cut, Rewrite, which is open until 5 January 2025 in the Weston Library’s Treasury.

The autograph, also known as ‘the Kohn manuscript’, after the great collector Ralph Kohn, is a magnificent example of a composing draft, which sheds light on one of Bach's finest cantatas, a testament to the composer’s swiftness and elegance of writing. The document has been exceptionally well cared for and the erosion of paper is mostly limited to the edges, making this one of the best-preserved autographs of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Often compared to Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, or Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the greatest Western composers, whose music represents a watershed in music history: the sum of all that came before him and an example and inspiration to all those who followed. Despite his prolific production, very few of Bach’s works were published in his lifetime, and without the miraculous survival of his autograph manuscripts in institutional collections, most of his masterpieces would be lost.

The most extensive collections of Bach’s manuscripts are in Berlin and Leipzig, and most of the surviving cantata manuscripts are in institutions in Germany, Poland and the USA. In the United Kingdom, there are only three other Bach autographs, two of which are held at the British Library, and one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. This cantata manuscript was previously exhibited in the UK at Buckingham Palace on the occasion of the performance of the piece for the then Prince of Wales, in the early 2000s. In this context, the arrival of the Kohn manuscript at the Bodleian Libraries is a proud moment in the history of manuscript curation in the UK. Oxford is an apt location for this, given that Bach scholarship and performance have been strong features of the Oxford musical landscape over the years.

The autograph of ‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ will join the already rich music archive of the Bodleian’s special collections, in particular the M. Deneke Mendelssohn collection which contains a lot of material relating to Felix Mendelssohn’s well-known enthusiasm for JS Bach and pioneering work to revive interest in the work of his musical hero. The collection contains Mendelssohn’s manuscript copies of many of Bach’s works, which he used to prepare his own performances and editions, notably the performance materials from his famous revivals of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 and 1841.

The cantata manuscript will be digitised and made available through the library’s platform for sharing its digitised collections, Digital Bodleian, and through the Bach Digital online portal. A performance,
commemorating the tercentenary of its original performance in 1725 is being planned. Meanwhile, the manuscript will be displayed in the exhibition Write, Cut, Rewrite, dedicated to the creative importance of drafting, reviewing and editing in literature, often referred to as ‘killing your darlings’. Curated by Dirk Van Hulle, Professor of Bibliography and Modern Book History at the University of Oxford, and Mark Nixon, Professor of Modern Literature and Beckett Studies at the University of Reading, the exhibition offers a peek behind the scenes into the writers’ workshops, drawing upon the Bodleian Libraries’ unparalleled collection of modern manuscripts from the 18th century to today.

When this extraordinary Bach manuscript joins the exhibition, it will feature as the only musical work, sitting alongside little-known literary revelations, abandoned works, discarded ideas and notes and scribbles from great authors such as Mary and Percy Shelley, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Samuel Beckett, and John le Carré.

The cantata ‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ and the Kohn manuscript

The manuscript was last owned by Leipzig-born Sir Ralph Kohn, who left Germany as a child and sought shelter in Britain, where he became a successful medical scientist and businessman. Sir Ralph was a great lover of music and owned many other manuscripts, but this Bach cantata was the pinnacle of his collecting.

Out of love for his adopted home, he wanted the precious document to go to a UK institution, and this wish was later fulfilled by his descendants with this donation.

‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ was composed for the feast of the Ascension, 10 May 1725, celebrating Christ’s triumphant rise to Heaven forty days after the Resurrection, but it did not appear in print until 1878, 150 years after it was composed.

The short, festive cantata, which lasts less than 20 minutes in performance, is scored for two horns, three different types of oboe, trumpet, strings and continuo, with four-part chorus, and alto, tenor and bass soloists. Its five movements comprise a celebratory opening chorus, a short recitative and aria for bass voice, a duet for alto and tenor, ending with a simple chorale. The music for this cantata was all new, which is relatively unusual for Bach who frequently recycled and adapted movements from his other compositions. The music for many of his cantatas has not survived at all.

The manuscript comprises four large-format bifolia (16 pages), handwritten by the composer himself in brown and black ink. The title is written above the first page of music: ‘Festo Ascensionis Xsti, Auff Christi Himmelfahrt allein’, preceded by Bach’s personal epigraph ‘J.J.’, which stands for ‘Jesu Juva’ (‘Jesus, Help’). This is Bach’s composing score, a working document in which the composer made many corrections and revisions, especially in the opening chorus. The manuscript also contains some annotations by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and a few faint pencil marks made by the printers as they prepared the work for its first publication in 1878.

As Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, Bach was expected to compose a new cantata for practically every Sunday of the church year, as well as special festivals like Ascension Day. Much of the writing betrays signs of great haste: for example, bar lines straggle down pages and there is little attempt to maintain the vertical alignment of the different parts. It is also interesting to see how Bach achieves his alterations by a variety of means: sometimes by scratching out the text with a pin, or simply by crossing through with his pen. The smudges made accidentally by his hand or sleeve before the ink was dry add a personal touch to the manuscript. Occasionally, where Bach has deleted notes or passages and heavily gone over various sections with his pen, the acidic ink has eroded the paper. This is unfortunately a common problem with the surviving Bach autographs, but this example is better than most, presenting fairly limited signs of erosion.

Characteristically, Bach does his best to condense the maximum amount of music into the minimum space, keen to avoid wasting valuable paper wherever possible. Every corner of the page is filled, the music flowing right to the edge. The dramatic immediacy on the page and the evident haste in which the composer wrote down his music, impart a sense of urgency and creative energy to Bach’s scores, which are often extremely beautiful in their own right. This manuscript is no exception.

On this new acquisition, the Alfred Brendel Curator of Music at the Bodleian Libraries, Martin Holmes, says:

It must be every music librarian’s dream to be given custody of a Bach autograph and the library is honoured to have been entrusted with this magnificent manuscript. Only two other institutions in the UK have Bach autographs in their collections and the Bodleian is proud to be the third.

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian, says:

The Bodleian has collected music in a serious way since its foundation over 400 years ago, but a significant manuscript in the hand of one of the greatest composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, has eluded us, until now. We are hugely grateful to the Acceptance in lieu panel, and to the estate of Zahava Kohn. We are thrilled to be entrusted with this global treasure, collected by the late Ralph Kohn, who fled his native Leipzig to avoid the Nazis, but who never lost his love for the city’s greatest music genius. We look forward to sharing this sublime treasure with scholars, engaging with music students, and inspiring composers long into the future.

Professor Robert Quinney, Organist and Tutorial Fellow in Music at New College, Oxford says:

This acquisition will be a jewel in the library’s music collection: one of only four autograph Bach manuscripts held in the UK. ‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ is one of a fascinating sequence of cantatas composed for Eastertide 1725 with texts by Marianne von Ziegler – Bach’s only known female librettist and seemingly a close collaborator with the composer. The music ranges from the dazzlingly energetic opening chorus and triumphant bass aria to the intimate duet for alto and tenor, and employs two horns, a solo trumpet and three oboes alongside strings and basso continuo. Thanks to this generous gift to the Bodleian, we now have the pleasure of not only hearing this rich and varied work, but also of seeing it arrayed (densely, and apparently hurriedly) across Bach’s manuscript score.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, Minister for Arts and Heritage, said:

I’m delighted that this magnificent and important score can be shared with scholars and the public — both in person and digitally — thanks to the Bodleian Library and the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. Seeing how Johann Sebastian Bach set down his genius on the page will help to deepen our appreciation and understanding of the great composer, whose work continues to move people around the world three centuries after he wrote it. When we mark the tercentenary of this beautiful cantata next year, we can do so in the happy knowledge that this important treasure has been saved for the public to admire and enjoy for generations to come. That is exactly what the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme exists for — and I hope this joyful example will encourage many more to make use of it.

Michael Clarke CBE, Chair, Acceptance in Lieu Panel, says:

I am delighted that this autograph manuscript by the great Johann Sebastian Bach has been allocated to the Bodleian Library, Oxford through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. Amazingly, it will be the first autograph score by Bach to have been acquired by that illustrious institution, so rich in other musical treasures. Bach’s devout Lutheran faith found its most consistent expression in the series of religious cantatas he composed throughout his life. This manuscript is the complete score for the cantata ‘Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein’ first performed in 1725 in Leipzig, the city where he had recently been appointed Director of Music. I hope that this thrilling allocation will encourage others to use the AIL Scheme and continue to support our national collections.

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Notes to editors

This work was acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme and its acceptance settled £3,650,000 of tax.

Details of the work are as follows:

Johann Sebastian BACH, 1685–1750
Cantata 'Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein', BWV 128 [1725], Catalogue no.1
The autograph manuscript of the full score, the only surviving working manuscript, with annotations also by Bach's eldest son, Wilehelm Friedemann.

8 folios (16 pages), large folio (c.34x21cm), each gathering numbered by Bach (with the exception of the first), written in brown/black ink on up to twenty-two hand-drawn staves per page, extensively
revised, especially the opening chorus, unbound, modern fitted folder and case.

The Acceptance in Lieu scheme is administered by Arts Council England. The Acceptance in Lieu Panel, chaired by Michael Clarke CBE, advises on whether property offered in lieu is of suitable importance and offered at a value which is fair to both nation and taxpayer. AIL allows those who have a bill to Inheritance Tax to pay the tax by transferring important cultural, scientific or historic objects to the nation. Material accepted under the scheme is allocated to public collections and is available for all. In the last decade this important government initiative brought £531.9m worth of treasures into public ownership for the enjoyment of all. Find out more about the acceptance in lieu scheme.

About Arts Council England

Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture. We have set out our strategic vision in Let’s Create that by 2030 we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish and where everyone of us has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences. From 2023 to 2026 we will invest over £467 million of public money from Government and an estimated £250 million from The National Lottery each year to help support the sector and to deliver this vision.